Paradoxical effect of cumulative stress exposure on information processing speed in Hispanics/Latinos with elevated heart rate variability

Int J Psychophysiol. 2021 Jun;164:1-8. doi: 10.1016/j.ijpsycho.2021.01.019. Epub 2021 Jan 30.


Chronic stress has a deleterious effect on prefrontal lobe functioning. Empirical evidence suggests elevated vagal tone, indexed by elevated heart rate variability (HRV), mitigates the effect of mental stress on frontal lobe function. Here, the mitigating effect of HRV on stress-related decrements in cognitive performance is assessed based on information processing speed (DSST), word fluency and verbal learning task performance. Artifact free electrocardiogram (ECG) data was analyzed from 1420 Hispanic/Latino adults from the Sociocultural Ancillary of the Hispanic Community Health Study/Study of Latinos (HCHS/SOL). A 12-lead ECG was used to collect short-term recordings of the root mean square of successive differences in all normal R-peak to R-peak intervals (RMSSD) and the change between adjacent beats and the standard deviation of those intervals (SDNN) as indices of total HRV. As predicted, an interaction emerged for HRV and stress on the task presumed to require the greatest prefrontal lobe involvement, i.e., the DSST. After accounting for sociodemographic factors, chronic stress was associated with better DSST performance amongst individuals at higher quartile of SDNN, but not RMSSD. The paradoxical effect for greater stress exposure on DSST performance may in part be explained by increased speed of information processing and decision making often reported in high-stress cohorts. The nature of this interaction highlights the importance of examining the relationship between stress and cognition across a spectrum of vagal tone.

Keywords: Autonomic regulation; Digit symbol substitution test; Information processing speed; Spanish-English verbal fluency; Ultra-short HRV; Vagal tone.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Cognition*
  • Electrocardiography
  • Heart Rate
  • Hispanic or Latino*
  • Humans
  • Verbal Learning